Distributed Knowledge

Definition and Example of Distributed Knowledge

The term distributed knowledge refers to information that is collected from a large number of individuals that can be used by each person. In the age of globalization and the Internet, gathering and distributing content such as “common knowledge” or “collective knowledge” is important. It helps promote the general knowledge and education of the user based on the knowledge of others. This concept is also used in work groups.

A simple example of distributed knowledge is as follows:
Andy and Jim are in an office that doesn’t have windows. They’re wondering if it’s raining outside but neither of them knows if it is or not. However, Andy knows that when their colleague Sandy wears her blue hat if it’s raining, Jim sees Sandy come in and she is wearing her blue hat. At this point neither still know if it’s raining or not. However, if Jim shares his knowledge with Andy and Andy shares his knowledge with Jim then they will then both know that it is raining.

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Common Knowledge

This is a similar concept where something is known by everyone or nearly everyone. Since people have knowledge of very different things common knowledge can vary a lot. In general, common knowledge is information that most would accept as valid as multiple people would agree with it. For something to be common knowledge it often depends on the group, location, society and time period. For example the US Constitution is well known to people who live in the US but not to people in other countries.

This kind of knowledge isn’t always stable as it can change over time as we as a species learn new things. For example it was thought the sun revolved around the earth, of course, we now know that to be the opposite. On a worldwide scale it’s hard to have common knowledge due to so much variation across the globe. For example, it may be assumed that the president of the USA would be known globally but we can’t know this for certain without doing some kind of huge survey which isn’t realistic.

Dispersed Knowledge

This is a variation of distributed knowledge that is used in economics. This kind of knowledge is the idea that no single thing has information for all factors that can influence production and prices throughout a system. Strongly linked to markets for assets, goods and services this format states that no one person can have the knowledge of all factors that affect that market. This is because they don’t know the intentions or plans of other people. In these markets it can be beneficial for people to keep their knowledge to themselves. However, this uncertainty can cause different opinions and ideas and thus bring about creativity.

Knowledge Sharing

Here knowledge is shared between all kinds of people, communities, colleagues, friends, family and between organizations. Traditional knowledge sharing would be done in person, at meetings or similar. However, these days online sharing is very common, especially via social media. There are different levels of knowledge sharing:

  • Explicit
  • Knowledge shared meets specific criteria such as the provider being able to describe the knowledge, the recipient being aware the knowledge is available and can access the knowledge provided. The knowledge must be defined well to avoid an overload of information. Provision of easy access to the knowledge is needed also.
  • Tacit
  • Where knowledge is shared via different types of socialisation. This can be in an informal way such as at work, home, school etc. The sharing will be unstructred, unmonitored or even experimental to encourage creativity. Trust is required to encourage people to share knowledge.
  • Embedded
  • Almost the opposite of tacit, knowledge is shared via specific routes. Meetings followed by debriefing are a perfect example here. Training and transferring of knowledge via integration is another example.


    Within organizations of all kinds there are many different ways distributed knowledge is utilized. More information methods include chats and storytelling. These can be carried out in person or online via messaging platforms and apps. Wikis are another example but these are more topic based and specific. Communities of interest or practice are where people gather and can implement the knowledge or simply share it via an organised way. Workgroups can include teams or departments in companies that meet to share their knowledge often when working towards a specific goal. On a smaller level there is mentoring which usually shared technical and operational skills. Share knowledge bases may seem similar to wikis but they come in different formats than websites such as intranet databases, models, drives etc.

    Difficulties and Solutions

    In the field of knowledge management there can be some challenges when it comes to sharing knowledge. Some people in businesses can be hesitant to share their knowledge. This can be because they see it as their property and sharing means they no longer own it. Sometimes leaders and management can hold onto information to keep their status, however, a good leader will encourage sharing. Incentivisation is one way to encourage sharing, to reward the sharing of knowledge will make many willing to share it. Cultural differences may also play a part. In some cultures people openly and often share their ideas and information. In other cultures knowledge is only shared when specifically asked for.

    Poor confidence and low self-esteem may cause someone to be reluctant to share knowledge. They may be worried their knowledge is wrong or may be seen as irrelevant. If it’s outside their field an employee may keep quiet so as not to annoy those who may be experts. A fix for this is to put everyone on the same level, Wikipedia does this by allowing edits from everyone which are then scrutinised afterwards. However, this approach can have mixed success. Excellent management that fosters and encourages people to speak up will always help in these cases.

    Problem Solving via Distributed Knowledge

    When knowledge is distributed it can often be because of a problem or issue that needs to be solved. Large issues such as global and societal issues are often solved collectively. This kind of problem solving requires people to work together either in person or online. These groups of people often have a common goal or social issue that they want to see fixed. These groups may be permanent or temporary, they will share their skills, expertise and knowledge. Joint efforts are required by the group or crowd in order to understand one another, share information and come to a conclusion. Members of the crowd here often learn from one another and people can gain skills such as increased self-esteem, critical thinking skills and social skills.

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